Richard Zimler, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (Overlook Press, 2000)

How can a writer telling a tale of unspeakable horror give the power of memory to mere words? Jewish writers describing the Inquisition, the Holocaust or the pogroms of Eastern Europe have often turned to metaphor and magical realism. In the Hebrew mystical tradition, demons and golem often come to characterize the worst atrocities of ordinary humans.

Richard Zimler's The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon illuminates one of the most horrific episodes in the history of organized religion -- the Lisbon massacre of 1506. Fueled by the fervor of the Inquisitional Church and ongoing panic over drought and plague, Portuguese citizens rounded up and massacred Jews who had been part of their community. Like many Holocaust writers, Zimler understands the impossibility of capturing the horror by trying to count the dead. Instead his novel focuses on a single family, a single murder, carried out not by Catholics but in all likelihood by a so-called New Christian -- a convert following the decree that all Jews must become Christian or die.

The investigation of the murder forms the basis of this stunning mystery, which is not only a whodunit but a profound meditation on the source of sin. Does evil reside in word or deed, and is there any difference? "Books are created from holy letters...just as angels are," explains one of Zimler's mystics. "An angel is nothing but a book given heavenly form." Within such a belief system, a demon can kill, even though the mystics teach that demons are only metaphors. Words determine who will live, who will die.

The murder victim, Abraham Zarco, was a great Kabbalist, a Master of the Names of God as well as a famed illuminator of manuscripts. In secret, Abraham had been preserving and smuggling Hebrew books out of Portugal to save them from being burned. Kabbalistic tradition equates the Hebrew alphabet with the Divine, so a Hebrew holy text is a heavenly gift worth risking lives to protect. Each book (sefer) is more valuable than its weight in sapphires (safira), the Portuguese code word for the volumes secured by Abraham's secret associates.

The murder and aftermath take place over the eight days of Passover, the celebration of the exodus from Egypt. Yet both literal and spiritual exodus are impossible -- the king's decree prevents Jewish emigration as well as the celebration of the holiday, which itself has been postponed by the Jews to hide their secret worship from those who would persecute them. Berekiah Zarco must hunt for the killer of his uncle and mentor as he hides from angry mobs less concerned with Catholic virtue than bloodthirsty scapegoating of others. He finds himself exiled from the faith that has defined his entire life.

Berekiah's search requires that he combine the scant facts at hand with his interpretation of religious scripture and mystical visions. The paintings in his uncle's Passover Haggadah offer clues to the secret identities of those who smuggled books out of Lisbon. More revelations emerge in a neighbor's possession by an ibbur, her punishment for cursing God. Though Berekiah has the skill to exorcise the demonic presence from the local woman, he finds himself weighing her soul against the possibility of learning from this unholy source the name of his uncle's killer.

Throughout, Berekiah must consider whether revenge is a holy motive or a move toward becoming like his uncle's killer and the murderous mob. In the same way that angel-books promise Jewish salvation, demon-words can destroy them all. Abraham's secret correspondent uses the name "Tu Bisvat," a pseudonym taken from the Jewish holiday associated with renewal and reparation to the Tree of Life. The narrator switches tenses as he reflects on the events following the murder, talking about mistakes he will make before he makes them; as a storytelling device, this adds to the immediacy of the massacre, yet it also has the effect of making the story ongoing and timeless.

During the Passover Seder, Jews thank God for saving them each individually from Egypt, as though each Jew throughout history had been saved by the exodus. Berekiah wants his audience not only to witness but to experience the Lisbon Massacre, and to understand that it will happen again -- not only to Jews, but to Muslims like his friend Farid, moral Christians like the priest who tried to save Jews from the fire, heretics accused of witchcraft. Ultimately, Berekiah realizes that the enemy is not the murderer, nor the Church, nor the ignorant peasants roused to violence, nor the ineffectual King, but each person who chooses apathy, cruelty or selfishness instead of fairness and tolerance.

As he ponders the difference between the God of Moses and the Ein Sof -- the unknowable God of the Kabbalists, who cannot be contained within the language of men -- Berekiah tries to imagine a world not bound to the law of religion, but secular and free. That world, he concludes, will never be created in the Europe he knows. Berekiah's final, prophetic vision of the fate of European Jewry leaves a chilling reminder that the event known as "the Holocaust" was not an anomaly in history; it wasn't even the first time such a conflagration happened to the Jews. Yet, pessimistic as this sounds, the events of the novel reflect the peaceful history of Jews and Moslems, who shared centuries of friendship and collaboration east of the Bosphorus.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon offers a devastating indictment of intolerance and illustration of how hate hurts the hater more the hated.  Zimler's personal, passionate approach to history and his refusal to separate the mystical from the mundane give this novel the power of myth.
 
 
 
 

[Michelle Erica Green]